Tag Archive | dying

An Update on Frank and Nancy

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Do you remember Man of Science, Man of Faith, a story about my friends Frank and Nancy?

Frank was diagnosed with a recurrence of his cancer last month.  He was given 3 months to live.

It hasn’t been a month yet.

Three weeks ago, Frank and Nancy were still kind of hopeful.  Even I am not quite sure what I mean by this.  Maybe just that they believed Frank had some good time left and that he would surpass the three month expiration date he’d been given?

Exactly three weeks ago (a couple of days after learning about Frank’s updated diagnosis), I stood in my kitchen chopping vegetables and browning chicken for homemade chicken soup.  I was making it for Frank.   When the people I care about are sick and I feel helpless, I am compelled to make chicken soup and bring food.  I certainly felt helpless when I heard about Frank’s stomach metastasis, so out came the big soup pot.

A few hours later, when the soup was finished and packaged in big, blue glass bowls, I walked next door to Frank and Nancy’s house.  I dragged my husband along so he could deliver the large bag of organic fruits and vegetables I had picked up at the grocery store for Frank and Nancy.

I knew that Nancy would understand my response to her husband’s illness.  I knew this because she has showed up on my doorstep with food a number of times since my diagnosis.

Nancy accepted the big red bag full of produce.  But she did not want me to leave the soup.  She said that three families from her church had dropped off three different kinds of soup that weekend.

I insisted that Nancy keep the soup.  I said that they didn’t need to eat it, but that I had made it just for them, so they could freeze it or toss it, but I wanted them to have it.  I needed them to accept it.  I’m usually not this forceful, so I surprised myself with my insistence.  But they had to take it, for my sake, because I had to help in some small way.

A couple of hours later, Nancy called me to tell me that she hadn’t wanted to say anything, but Frank was only eating soft foods.  She said that he had tried the other soups but couldn’t eat them (or didn’t want to).  She told me that he tried mine and enjoyed it, including the soft vegetables and mushrooms it contained.  She said that he had even managed to finish a bowl.  She was so happy that she had to call.  And I was so touched that I felt a hard lump develop in my throat.

So two weeks ago when Nancy said that the soup was gone and she asked me to make more, I was delighted.  I was just getting over pneumonia and was so tired that it took me most of the day (with rests in between!), but I was honored that Nancy had asked.

This time I decided to roast a whole chicken.  I stood in the kitchen dressing the chicken, thinking about poor Frank and Nancy.  As I placed rosemary sprigs and a freshly cut lemon into the chicken, I recalled that day two summers ago.  Nancy had arranged a surprise 50th birthday party for Frank.  As I rubbed the herbed butter I had just made onto the chicken and under it’s breast skin, I remember how excited Nancy was.  She wanted everything to be perfect.

Nancy even went so far as to plan the party in a large and lovely space in the new town hall building — in another town a half hour away.  She didn’t want him to suspect.  She told Frank that the party he was going to was a graduation party for a girl they knew.

I was now chopping vegetables, placing them in the roasting pan beneath the chicken, and dousing them with olive oil and salt and pepper.

When Frank walked into the party room, we were all there.  His closest family and friends.  Nancy had even flown Frank’s brother and sister in from out of state.  So when he walked in and saw the fake graduation girl and noticed his own friends and family behind her, I think he was just as shocked as when everyone shouted “Surprise!”

I opened the oven and slid the roasting pan in.  It was time to start working on the soup now.

Frank was clearly surprised.  So surprised and touched that he wept.  Frank is a very tall man, so to see this tall man with a commanding presence stop in his tracks and begin crying was a moving sight.

I filled a large pot with water, chicken stock and salt and pepper, and I began washing and chopping more vegetables.

It was a great day filled with smiling and laughter.  Genuine happiness.  Nancy had done a beautiful thing for Frank.  Though she didn’t have a lot of money to spend, she made the party seem like she had a large budget to work with.  She worked hard on this day and she asked people to pitch in where they could.  She knew it was an important day.

It would come to be more important than she ever could have realized.

I gently dropped vegetables into the pot and added a touch of olive oil and seasoning to the stock.  Soon I would take the golden brown chicken from the oven and add juicy chunks of chicken and tender, roasted vegetables to the stockpot.  And then I would walk next door to Frank and Nancy’s house with my pot and with the hope that Frank would be able to eat my humble offering.

That was two weeks ago.

One week ago, Nancy said that Frank was now only able to drink the broth.

And things got progressively worse this week.  I remember hearing the distress in Nancy’s voice whenever we talked.  She was tired from worry and from caring for Frank around the clock.

And when Frank and Nancy’s son came over in need of a ride to school on a couple of the mornings (because he had missed the bus so he could help his mom take care of his dad), he was noticeably quiet.

Nancy was having trouble keeping Frank hydrated.  She was using a syringe to wet his lips and mouth.  I took Pedialyte popsicles over so she could melt them down and replenish some of his electrolytes.  But we knew they wouldn’t make that much of a difference.

Despite her vigilance, Frank had also developed a bedsore.  Nancy said that the nurses had’t been caring for it, so I took a special cream over that would help to soothe it and form a barrier.  But I was afraid that it would get infected and I knew that it must be causing pain.

Early Thursday morning, the phone rang when it was still dark outside.  It was Nancy.  She said that Frank was unresponsive and that he had wet himself.  I tried to conceal how upset I was to hear this, but it was no use.  I talked to Nancy for a little while and told her I would bring some adult diapers over.  They had given me these when I was hospitalized for my hysterectomy last year and had been hemorrhaging and pads were not enough.  I was sad when I realized that I had no idea back then that they would be going to Frank.

Frank came around again that morning and was able to talk to Nancy and his kids, but I knew that these things were signs that he would be gone soon.  My guess was that day.  Frank and Nancy’s son came over for a ride to school after he helped his mom clean and diaper his dad.  He was visibly shaken.  It was heartbreaking.  He is a good kid and a good son.  I was upset that he had to experience this.  His prom was the next night and instead of worrying about what kind of corsage to get his date like his friends, he was worrying about losing his father to cancer.

The day went on and night came.  At 2 a.m., the phone rang.  I knew it was Nancy.  I picked up the phone and heard a small voice on the other end.  It was Nancy telling me that Frank had just passed.  She sounded both upset and relieved.  His pain had ended and his suffering was over.

Cancer claimed another life.

Frank was just 51.  He is survived by his loving wife, son, daughter, brand new (5-month-old) granddaughter, and a large group of friends and family who loved him.

Man of Science, Man of Faith

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If you were a Lost fan and saw every episode (as I did), you might recall an episode titled “Man of Science, Man of Faith,” (S2, E1).

It was the first episode of season 2 and the episode where Jack, a surgeon, meets his future wife.  She is brought into the E.R. after a devastating car accident that leaves her paralyzed.  Jack plans to operate but tells her that the possibility of regaining function is almost nonexistent.  Jack’s father, a senior surgeon, witnesses this exchange and chastises his son for squelching his patient’s hope.  Jack barks that her spine is crushed and that any hope he’d be giving her would be false hope.  He performs the surgery to the best of his ability, but she is so damaged that he believes she is still paralyzed and that he was unable to fix her.  When he goes back to apologize and tell her she will never have feeling below her waist, she begins wiggling her toes.  Jack, who was previously only a man of science, realizes that science and faith merged to create a miracle.

My friend Nancy has known about my cancer since the beginning.  She watched me barely make it through harsh chemos.  She visited when I was giving myself daily injections of Neupogen as my white blood cell counts plummeted.  She came to say goodbye on the eves of major surgeries.  She brought dinners over to feed my children when I had I.V. bags full of fluid running into the Powerport in my chest and was vomiting so much that I could barely hold my head up.

She watched me spiral downward into a deep well of cancer.  And then she watched me slowly claw my way up to the surface again.

And somewhere in the midst of this, she came to my door with both fear and hope in her eyes.  She told me that her husband, Frank, had something show up on his CAT scan.

I knew that Frank’s hadn’t been feeling well.  I knew that he didn’t look well.  And when I last saw him, the yellow tint in his eyes did not go unnoticed.

She said that he was scheduled for surgery, but that God was good and that he would be fine.

As you may have guessed, Nancy is very religious and is outwardly so.  She has no qualms about sharing her beliefs.

Nor does she have any trouble with telling others to have hope and faith.  She has done this with me many times since my diagnosis.  She has even gone so far as to tell me in a roundabout way that when I am not doing well, it is because I am not trusting in God and not being faithful enough.

It is always a difficult thing for me to hear, especially during the times when I have felt my worst.  I’d be lying if I said the idea that I am responsible for the cancer for any reason is a tough pill to swallow.

But I listen and nod my head because I know Nancy is not saying these things to hurt my feelings.  I know she says them because her faith is so strong that she can’t see these situations from any other angle.

Frank’s surgery revealed a small tumor.  It was malignant.  They also found a small amount of cancer in one lymph node.  The good news was that the surgeon managed to get clean margins.

I was noticeably concerned, but Nancy reminded me that God is good and that the cancer was small and her husband would be fine.

Frank is a doctor and a man of the cloth.  Frank is both a man of science and a man of faith.  Usually.

When Frank started chemo, Nancy did her best to make healthy foods that Frank could tolerate.  She took care of him and they prayed together regularly.  They both had faith that everything would be fine.

Frank had a really difficult time with chemo and eventually decided that he’d had enough because it was making him so sick.  They repeated his scans and everything looked good.  So they both said “God is good” and made the decision to stop the chemo.  Frank was so sick from the chemo that he and Nancy thought it wasn’t worth continuing, especially when his scans were good and he had God protecting him.

I was reeling over this decision.  I insisted that Frank should continue to pray, but that he should also consider finishing the chemo.  I repeated that he would be horribly sick during chemo, but that he would feel better when it ended.  I said that it would be worth it in the end because it would give him the best shot at life.  I pleaded with them then — and many times since.

But they insisted that they were going to let God take care of it.  He didn’t need the harsh chemo.  He just needed to be faithful.

So time passed.  His scans were still good.  I insisted that he go back and finish, though.  But my friends told me that it wasn’t worth the side effects and that God was healing him.

And then he didn’t feel well.  He was having trouble eating.  He didn’t look good.  He was losing weight.

A few weeks later, Nancy said Frank had collapsed and they were going to the hospital for dehydration.  It was the second time in a month.

I suggested that she look into home I.V. hydration so he could avoid these hospital stays.  And I also pleaded with her to reconsider the chemo decision.  She said that it wasn’t open for discussion.  Frank did not want to get sicker with chemo and she wasn’t going to push it.  She still insisted that he would be fine.

He had to go back into the hospital last week.  Again for dehydration.  But this time the scan revealed something.  But she didn’t tell me about it.

She called tonight during dinner.  She asked about the times when I had home hydration because the hospital was giving her a hard time.  They told her that he would need to enroll in hospice and sign a DNR before they would start home I.V. hydration and was this what I had to do?

I told her that it wasn’t at all.  I signed a few forms at the Cancer Center and then a few more when the delivery truck and my nurse showed up at the door.  But it wasn’t hospice related.  And there was no DNR to sign.

The conversation haunted me.  Then I learned that Frank was no longer going upstairs.  Nancy was giving him sponge baths in the living room.  And a hospital bed had just been delivered.

I was sick to my stomach because I had been through this with loved ones before and I knew what it meant.

Nancy said that the latest scan revealed that the cancer had metastasized to his stomach.  That he has 3 months to live.  3 months.

They are scared.  And rightfully so.

And my heart aches for them because I love them both and I don’t want this disease to take Nancy’s husband.

I do believe in God and I do believe in the power of prayer.  But I also believe that modern medicine exists for a reason.

I  wish they could have found a way to balance medicine and faith.  I wish he had finished the chemo.  And I’m sure they do, too.

 

Cancer and Cockroaches

So I have been having these dizzy/fainting spells and an episode or two that looked like seizures.  My neurologist wanted to do an MRI when I saw her last week, but I told her I didn’t think it was necessary.  So she opted for an EEG.

I had the EEG early Thursday morning.  It was pretty simple.  They scrubbed areas of my scalp and affixed leads.  Then they wrapped my head up with a gauze bandage to ensure that the leads wouldn’t move during the test.

I lay down in a hospital bed while they tested me with a strobe light, had me do a hyperventilation test, and then waited as I tried to fall asleep.

When I was finished, one of the technicians tried to wipe the blue gel out of my hair.  She told me that I could go to clean it out in the bathroom since my husband and son (home from school because he had a stomach bug) were coming to pick me up and we were going on to other appointments.  I opted to just skip the freshening up and walked out to the car to find my hair sticking up in places, with a visible sticky blue gel helping to create a familiar look for me–“the disheveled patient”.

The person conducting the EEG wished me good luck with everything and said the results would be forwarded to my neurologist next week and that she would likely call me after that.

I assumed the test results would be fine–and that I wouldn’t hear from my doctor until my next appointment with her in a couple of weeks.

But when I saw the hospital’s number in the Caller ID and then heard her message on Friday, I wondered how she had gotten the results so quickly.  She said that she had my results and that she would try to call again.  So I called her office, let her know that I would be home for the next hour (before heading to the cardiologist).  They didn’t expect her to get back to me that day since it was already late in the afternoon, so when she called back 10 minutes later, I was a bit concerned–though the bigger part of me still thought she would say everything was fine.

When the neurologist told me they found an abnormality on my EEG, it didn’t sink in right away.  She didn’t go into too much detail, but she said that they found “something” in my left temporal lobe.  Especially given my cancer history, it is troubling.  The concern is that the cancer has spread to my brain.  She said that she would order an MRI with contrast–and that I couldn’t object this time.

If this is metastasis to the brain, I will be so ticked off.  I made a deal with the cancer in the beginning.  Stay away from the brain and… well, I forget what the cancer was supposed to get out of the deal.  This arrangement reminded me of when I moved into my dorm room during my first semester at the University.  It was a school filled with many well-off kids (though I was there solely because of scholarships and students loans), so you can imagine my shock when I saw a couple of cockroaches emerge from my roommate’s television during that first week.  It wasn’t long before they took hold in the room.  I was dismayed, but made a “deal” with them.  “You can have the rest of the room, but stay off my bed and my desk,” I pleaded with them.

Things were going okay as I waited out the days until the exterminator was supposed to come to our dorm room.  Everything changed when I came home after a late night at the chemistry lab.  There they were on my desk, even on the phone, and darting through my photo frames.  It was ridiculous, but I was angry because the roaches had violated our agreement.  I called and requested that the exterminator come sooner and when that didn’t work, I actually moved to a new room where I never saw another roach.

I wish it were that simple with cancer…  That I could just move down the hall and never have to worry about it again…  Alas, it is not that simple.

Spread to the brain has been one of my biggest fears since my diagnosis 2 1/2 years ago.  I watched my grandmother die a painful death from brain cancer when I was a little girl and the experience scarred me for life.  She was one of the most special people in the world to me and she died when I was just 9 — a year older than my twin boys.

One of my biggest fears since that traumatic period in my youth was that I, too, would develop brain cancer and suffer the same fate as my grandmother.  Of course, if this is actually a tumor, it is likely a spread of my breast cancer and not a tumor that originated in the brain like my grandmother’s was presumed to be.  But the effects would be essentially the same, especially given it’s location in the left temporal lobe.  If my children have to watch me suffer in the way that my grandmother did, I think I would have to rethink my plan of fighting until the end.  I don’t think I could leave them with with the same images and experiences that have haunted me my entire life–because I know how it will end.

I hope it’s just a mistake and I hope I won’t have to worry about that…

 

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April 13, 2010 a.m. – Today is the Day

I have my appointment at the breast center this morning.

My sons’ birthdays are tomorrow.  (They are twins.)  I am thinking about a dear friend who died 2 days before the boys’ first birthdays, so five years ago yesterday.  She treated me as a daughter throughout my awkward younger years and until her death.  Her actual daughter was one of my two very best friends, so she often shuffled us from here to there and picked us up from school when we needed a ride.  This was almost every day for a time because her daughter and I ‘stayed after’ for numerous clubs and activities and sometimes just for a chance encounter with the boy we both liked.  [I am smiling as I recall this last bit and how silly we were!]  She never complained about having me in her home or minivan so often.  She said she enjoyed talking to me.  And I felt the same way.  She became close friends with my mother—they were the same age and both warmhearted gardening Englishwomen with gardening English mothers who were displaced from their homelands.  We remained very close.  I even lived with her for a year when I left college.  Oddly enough, the first house I bought was a side-split almost identical to hers–and just around the corner from her–and was a place where she planted some of the lovely lilies she bred.

She was diagnosed with breast cancer in her 40’s.  She was forever changed by it.  And not in the good way people sometimes talk about, but in a way that makes my heart ache for her.  It was painful and traumatic.  And at her young age, isolating, I’m sure.

We should have been celebrating together at my sons’ first birthday party as planned that Saturday five years ago.  Instead, I was at her funeral.

I glanced at some of the silk ribbons hanging on the closet door on my way downstairs this morning.  She had earned the awards for her prize-winning rabbits.  I could hear myself asking her to help me handle whatever happened today.

April 1, 2010 – Only One Pink Line

My breast has been leaking fluid—now enough to wet the inside of my bra cup.  At first I wasn’t too alarmed, but the amount is increasing.  I did buy three more pregnancy tests from the dollar store, just to be sure.  I took the final test this morning.  When I saw only one pink line again, my heart sank.

If I’m not pregnant, there is definitely something wrong.  The fluid is translucent and pale yellow/brown.  If I squeeze my breast a little, more emerges.  There seems to be no end to it.  This can’t be normal.  Could it be an infection?  I know it’s not.  I’ve had plenty of antibiotics for bronchitis and sinus infections in the past year and they haven’t affected the breast at all.  And I have been feeling really ill and fatigued for months.  I’ve lost almost 15 pounds without changing my eating habits.  This can’t be good.

I’m scared now, but I haven’t told anyone what is going on.  Why haven’t I cared enough about myself to get this checked out again?  If this were happening to anyone else, I would say, “WTF (and I don’t swear… well, not that much anyway…), it is not nothing.  You are NOT too young.  Get yourself to a doctor.  I’ll take you right now.  The money is not important.”  Why haven’t I done this for myself?

Hopefully it is nothing and I’ll feel silly when this is all over with.

But I know it’s not nothing…

March 29, 2010 — I Wish “I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant”

For the past 6, 7, 8 months—I forget how long, exactly?—I’ve had this feeling that reminds me of when I breastfed my twins.  It is like the “let-down” feeling you experience when nursing.  I have been joking for months that I’m actually pregnant and just don’t know it and that I will end up on that show about women who are pregnant and don’t realize it until the babies pop out onto their shoe, or in their pants, or in the restroom at a fast food restaurant.  The breast feeling has been so consistent that I’ve actually taken multiple negative pregnancy tests.  But they have been negative for women on the show, too, so that’s no guarantee.

All kidding aside, I am becoming quite concerned about this unpleasant feeling.  In the past month or so (I’ve lost track of time, but I think it has been well over a month) it has become constant.  When you are nursing, you have a break from this tingly, consuming feeling.  But it is not letting up.  I feel it ALL of the time.  I think there is something wrong.  My gut tells me that giving birth to a surprise baby in my bathtub would be the best case scenario right now.

You may be asking why haven’t I been back to the doctor?  If you are, I applaud you.  This would be my first question to you.  It is a logical question and would have been my first step a couple of years ago.

So, why haven’t I been back to the doctor?

I don’t have health insurance.  After my husband was let go suddenly from the company he worked for for a decade, we lost the policy we had for years.  I was able to secure coverage for our 5 year old twins, but my husband and I have no coverage now.  I don’t want to do anything that might jeopardize our family financially, but I think it’s time for me to see a doctor…

March 25, 2010

I’ve had these lumps in my left breast since last year.  They were small when I first felt them, but now they are not only much larger, but clearly visible when you look at my breast.  It has been so long since I actually felt my breast (I know, I know!  I’ll explain why in a minute) that I was shocked to feel how much bigger they had gotten.

It was last summer when I told my doctor about them.  She felt them, said that they “did not feel like cancer” or “like anything to worry about” and she sent me on my way.  She said that at my age, the likelihood that they were anything was remote.  Since I’d had lumps in the other breast a few years before and she had sent me for my first mammogram back then (at 29) and they had turned out to be benign, I didn’t push it.  After all, out of all the cancers in my family history, breast cancer was not on the list.

But as I put my shirt back on after my exam last summer, I heard the words, “This will come back to haunt you,” very clearly.  I heard them so clearly that it was as if someone was speaking the words to me.  But I did not listen.

This was when I stopped doing breast self exams.  Since these were not my first lumps and since the others had been evaluated and were benign, I figured that I obviously did not know what I was looking for.  If she could feel these new lumps and could identify them as nothing to worry about by touch alone, then I obviously didn’t know what I was feeling.  I decided that doing self exams would only alert me to more benign lumps and take more of my doctor’s time.  I felt silly even bringing these new lumps to the attention of my doctor last year.  I didn’t want to seem like a hypochondriac.  Women my age don’t develop breast cancer and I don’t have a family history.  At least that’s what I thought back then…

But now that the lumps are so much larger, I have a bad feeling.  And I’ve recently learned that women my age DO develop breast cancer and that a lack of family history DOES NOT make you immune.

Still, I waver between being concerned and thinking my concern is silly…